Psalm 106:24–31; Jeremiah 42,43; Philemon 1:12–25

Psalm 106:24–31: This detailed poetic history of he years in the wilderness recounts how the Israelites came to hate everything about God, including even the promised land itself: “And they despised the land of desires,/ they did not trust His word.” (24) Instead, “they muttered in their tents,/ they did not heed the voice of the Lord.” (25) There were consequences: “And He raised His hand against them,/ to make them fall in the wilderness.” (26)

We are fundamentally no different. We do not trust God’s word and we certainly spend lots of time muttering in our tents. Which today is the bitter whining that we hear from Christians who complain that the culture has turned against Christianity.  I am certainly unhappy at the direction that our country appears to be headed; it even seems pretty lost in the wilderness. But the mandate is clear: Trust God. There is far too great an attempt by too many, who in the name of God, are striving to control events to their own desired outcome. They have come to believe they know precisely what God wants when it is really what they want.

The psalmist calls out one faithful man amidst the whining and the turning away from God: “And Phineas stood and prayed,/ and the scourge was held back/ and it was counted for him as merit,/ generation to generation forever.” (30, 31). The message is clear. Phineas prayed. The challenge is to follow his example and not the mob’s.

 Jeremiah 42,43: There are only a few–the ‘remnant’–left in Judah, and they come to Jeremiah, asking “Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the Lord your God show us where we should go and what we should do.” (42: 3-4) Jeremiah agrees and the group tells the prophet, “Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God,” (42:6). After ten days, Jeremiah hears the voice of God, telling them that they are to remain in Judah: “If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” (42:10) God apologizes!

Jeremiah says that they should not fear the king of Babylon and if they flee to Egypt–as they have been planning to do–they will die. The irony of a return to Egypt, the land of slavery from which they escaped centuries earlier was apparently lost on them. Jeremiah impresses on them several times that if they go, “you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go and settle.” (42:21)

But contrary to their promise to do whatever God said, speaking through Jeremiah, “Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the other insolent men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’.” (43:2) They accuse the prophet of colluding with Baruch who is “is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” (43:3) And the remnant heads off to Egypt in defiance of God and breaking their promise to obey, taking Jeremiah with them.

This is human nature. Make a promise to God but when the news is not what we want to hear, we go do what we wanted to anyway. But God, unlike us, means what he says.

Jeremiah hears God command him to “Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes. Let the Judeans see you do it,” (43:8)  Jeremiah tells those who observed this action that “my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them. He shall come and ravage the land of Egypt.” (43:10-11) Of course the lesson here is that we can try, but we cannot escape God. This is always the outcome when we attempt to twist things to fit our own agenda. A less creative God would have had the Egyptians kill the Judeans, but instead God will use the the very instrument that would have protected them in Judea–Babylon–to take them out in what they thought was their refuge. The question is, in what ideas of my own that are not God’s do I seek false refuge?

Philemon 1:12–25: In an act of great generosity, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, the slave’s owner: “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (13, 14) This is Paul at his masterful best, suggesting that maybe it is God’s will for Onesimus to return to his owner in the hope that he is “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16) Paul offers to pay any expenses incurred and concludes, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (21)

This short heart-warming letter is an image of what God has done for us in sending Jesus Christ to us as Onensimus was sent originally to Paul–and somehow I suspect the parallel was not lost on Paul. As Jesus returned to heaven, the slave returns to Philemon. And as Paul speaks so often of going to heaven, here he asks, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (22) Indeed, this is an echo of Jesus’ promise in the Upper Room: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)

Did Paul ever make it to Philemon’s house and see Onesimus again? Probably not. His heart was rent, but Paul’s generosity arose from his intense love not just for Onesimus and Philemon, but from his love of Jesus Christ.

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